For the first time in its 30-year history, the Medical Research Council honoured two black researchers with gold and silver medals for their contributions to medical research on Thursday night in Cape Town.
At its 30th anniversary celebrations, the MRC awarded a gold medal to Professor Kanti Bhoola, head of the Department of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Natal and a silver medal to Professor Jerry Coovadia, head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Natal.
Professor Ronald Anderson, director of the Department of Immunology at the University of Pretoria also received a gold medal, and two further silver medals were awarded to Professor Peter Cleaton Jones, director of the MRC’s Dental Research Institute and Professor Keith Klugman, director of the Department of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the South African Institute of Medical Research.
The awards were presented by the Minister of Health, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who urged the MRC to pay special attention to the re-emergence of TB and other infections, due largely to the spread of HIV. She said HIV/AIDS had taken the government by surprise and the epidemic was consuming vast amounts of the state’s health resources.
The impact of information technology on medicine and the implications of genetic coding were challenges that South African society could not avoid, said the president of the MRC, Professor William Makgoba. In his address to
the gathering, which included leading medical researchers from around the country, Makgoba said new developments in medical science meant that health care systems should change from invention to prevention mode.
In itself this is nothing new, doctors have been saying for years that prevention is better than cure, said Makgoba, but this time the ability to prevent illness would be based on the use of DNA cards and genetic coding.
This would allow doctors to predict patients’ levels of risk for certain illnesses and to pre-empt certain conditions. In the light of these developments, more focus was likely to be placed on fitness centres than hospitals and patients could expect to have tests conducted in their homes rather than laboratories.
“More significantly,” said Makgoba, “society will be able to design smart, competitive, aggressive or beautiful people, but these options will be available only to the rich.”
He said this would make a mockery of the notion of equal opportunity. Societies who could “design” their children to be intelligent and talented would automatically enjoy a head start over other societies.
“The important issues for society is how genetic profiling would affect public policy, social dialogue and information access. Who would have access to this information and how would society use the information available? These issues require careful management by government. The most obvious risk is that genetic information could be misused.”
Makgoba said the role of the MRC in the coming years was to do research in all these areas, to provide the most up-to-date scientific evidence to allow the public and policymakers to make informed choices. An understanding of the options open for healthcare in South Africa was essential if the country was to develop and be competitive. – health-e news service [Published, City Press 14/11/99]